Unit 10

English 203:
Literature of the NonWestern World
Introduction .Explication Questions Review

Reading: The Epic of Son-Jara, 1431-72
 Nadine Gordimer,     "Oral History,"  2919-31 

Our introduction says that:
1431    The founding of the Mali empire in the mid-13th c. is attributed to Son-Jara Keita, whose
           life & exploits are celebrated in the epic
we will read.  Like the Ramayana in India, the Epic of Son-Jara
is still performed all over the Manding area [of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, & Guinea].

I suspect that many of you found Kalidasa's play Sakuntala less than captivating, because so much of its appeal relies on performance: dance, rhymed speech, singing, music, sumptuous costumes & sets.  The Epic of Son-Jara does not have these elements, but it is an oral work.  Much of its appeal lies in the social experience of responding to the storyteller.  We can't do this in cyberspace.  So I hope you can substitute a bit by playing music of Ali Farka Toure or Salif Keita.  These are contemporary musicians from the same part of Africa depicted in The Epic of Son-Jara.

Because it is an oral work, meant to be performed, The Epic of Son-Jara features many formal names & titles.  Click here to find a list of the characters:
  Characters in Son-Jara

The theme of The Epic of Son-Jara is stated at the beginning:
line 3    A man of power is hard to find.

Like The 1,001 Nights, the theme of Son-Jara is growing up, gaining the power to control one's emotions & the power not to be dominated by other people (as children are dominated by their parents).

We pick up the epic with Episode 4 & a prophecy from a jinn.  What are jinn?  Hopefully you recall them from our lesson on The Koran.  We learned that angels were created from light, jinn from fire, & humans from mud. You should notice that the world of Son-Jara is influenced by Islam:
1000    A jinn came & laid a hand on him [getting his attention]
          "Should you come by that ugly maid,
          She will bear you a son
          The Manden will belong to him."

The prophecy is comparable to that given to Abraham.  Remember that we are in the Muslim world.  Abraham's first son was Is'mail (Ishmael), the founder of Mecca & patriarch of the Arab people.  You see the parallelism?  Like Is'mail, Son-Jara will be a great leader & patriarch:
1008    I sing of the Sorcerer's future;
           Of the life ahead of Son-Jara!

Son-Jara will be a descendent of Bilal:
1031    My forefather Bilal,
           When he departed from the Messenger of God

Who is Bilal?  He was an Ethiopian slave who lived in Mecca in the time of the Prophet.  Bilal was the first African to convert to Islam.  He became a Companion of the Prophet.  We know that African music is some of the greatest in the world & that music is a central element of all African cultures.  Thus it is interesting to discover that because of his fine voice, Bilal was appointed by Mohammed to be the first muezzin, the one who calls the faithful to prayer.  Here is a short piece on Bilal from a website that offers authoritative information on Islam:

Son-Jara is his father's 2nd son, but somehow he is announced as the first son & is so designated as heir:
1109    "Your husband said the first name heard,
           Said, he would be the elder
1114    "I was the first to marry my husband,
           & the first to bear him a son.
           Now you have made him the younger
           You have really reached your limit!"
           She spoke then to her younger co-wife,
           "For you marriage has turned sweet.
           A first son birth is the work of old,
           & yours has become the elder."

Literature is always allusive.  There are always earlier texts or stories that influence every text.  What are the influences here?  We are likely to think of how Jacob stole his elder brother Esau's birthright (Genesis 27), especially when he find that Son-Jara is as hairy as Esau:
1138    From the very top of Son-Jara's head,
           To the very tip of his toes, all hair!

Esau, whose name mean "hairy," was the first born of Isaac's twin sons, Esau & Jacob.  There is also the implicit rivalry between Abraham's 2 sons: Is'mail & Isaac.  Regardless of the allusion or influence, the point is fairly obvious: that you can rise to the top or overcome limiting circumstances.  Son-Jara has not yet done anything to illustrate this.  Like the earlier prophecy about his birth, this is a prophetic suggestion of what will happen.  What obstacles does Son-Jara have to overcome?  Perhaps causing us to think of Sarah & her command to banish Is'mail, the mother of Son-Jara's slightly elder brother (she is called the Berete woman) curses Son-Jara.  In fact she gets a "witch-doctor" or ju-ju (magic) shaman to curse the infant:
1151    The Beret woman,
           She summoned to her a holy-man,
           Charging him to pray to God
           So Son-Jara would not walk
1158    For 9 years, Son-Jara crawled upon the ground.

(By the way, one of King Sunny Ade's albums is called Ju-Ju Music.  It is magic, for Sunny Ade is a great Nigerian musician who has made appearances as close-by [not in cyberspace] as Santa Fe.)
After this long gestation in or on mother earth (9 years instead of 9 months), Son-Jara begins to walk in our world.  The boy finds a kind of father or a benefactor in the person of another jinn:
1160    It was a jinn Magan Son-Jara had.
           His name was Tanimunari.
           He took the lame Son-Jara
           & made the hajj
           To the gates of the Kaabah.

The "warrant" or result from the haj is Son-Jara's claim:
1173    I will rule over all these people.
           "The Manden shall be mine!"

 The rivalry between the brothers is not settled.  In something like a dream or ritualized version of the rivalry, 2 rams fight:
 1192    Son-Jara's ram had won.
            They slaughtered both the rams.
            & cast them down a well,
            So the deed would not be known.
            But known it did become.
                 Knowing never fails its time,
                 Except its day not come.

Oral literature is especially full of the kind of aphorisms that you see in the last two lines.  What does it mean?  Something like, the truth will become evident when the time is right-- if that time comes. & the time does come with the clear succession of authority:
1266    The Messenger of God [Mohammad] was born
           Jon Bilal was born.
           On its tenth day,
           Was the day for Son-Jara to walk.

Nine years of crawling before he can stand illustrates this point:
1277     All people with their empty words,
            They all seek to be men of power.
            All of them seek after power,
            But there is no easy way to power.

A blacksmith fashions an iron staff by which Son-Jara pulls himself up to stand:
1358    & upwards Son-Jara drew himself.

But the iron staff does not work.  Perhaps it is too male, too inflexible & cold.  Another staff, cut from a custard apple or quince tree does work.  Quince or custard apples are the cheapest fruit in the tropics.  Leaning on a quince tree staff, Son-Jara is a man of the people who will provide for them as prolifically as the quince tree.

Now that he can walk, we expect Son-Jara to run away from mom to play with other children.  Ah, but Son-Jara is a model son:
1518     He planted the baobab behind his mother's house [saying]:
            "In & about the Manden,
            From my mother they must seek these leaves!"
1525     "Ah, my mother,
            All those women who refused you leaves,
            They all must seek those leaves from you."

Son-Jara is protected by God:
1563     . . . one day,
            A jinn came upon him,
            & laid his hand on Son-Jara's shoulder [warning him]:
            "O Son-Jara!
            In the Manden, there's a plot against you.

Like the ritual of the 2 rams fighting, there is now a dog fight that illustrates:
n1 p. 1450    Son-Jara must have superior magical power.
For Son-Jara's toothless dog:
1607     charged the dog of Dankaran Tuman
            & ripped him into shreds, fèsè fèsè fèsè!

We can imagine the kids listening to this story would be amused at the sounds of the dog fight: "fèsè fèsè."  I am guessing that many of the sound effects performed by the story-teller are aimed at the young people in the audience.  The themes of how to grow up, how to respect people (especially one's mother), & the necessity of patience -- all seem especially oriented to young listeners.  Then there are the scary monsters, Sumamuru who wears a human skin suit & the 9 Queens of Darkness.  There are also magical scenes, such as the 9 piles of meat somehow reassembling into the red bull.  All of these would no doubt have been appreciated by young listeners.

Son-Jara's rivalry with his brother takes a turn that should remind you of Rama's muted rivalry with his brother Bharata who ruled the 14 years that Rama was exiled in the forest.
1648    The mother of King Dankaran Tuman [said],
1655    "Go & seek a place to die,
            If not, I will chop through your necks."
1659     Son-Jara bitterly wept, bilika bilika!
            & went to tell his mother.
            His mother said,
            "Ah!  My child,
            Be calm.  Salute [i.e., respect] your brother.
            Had he banished you as a cripple,
            Where would you have gone?"

As in a dream, the order is linguistic instead of chronological.  So at the mention of exile, Son-Jara takes her son away from the dangerous rivalry with his brother & her mother.
Son-Jara is still a child, unlike Ram whose wife Sita is abducted.  With Son-Jara in exile, his brother succeeds to the Manden throne but is incapable of dealing with a threat from a neighbor, king Sumamuru.  In exile, Son-Jara learns ju-ju (magic):
1174     Ah!  Those who are feared by all,
            If you join them, you are spared

We learn that:
1796     The village where Sumamuru was,
            That village was called Dark Forest.

The footnote (#6 on p. 1453) says that:
The name of the village identifies Sumamuru with paganism [or African primal religion], as opposed
to the Muslim affiliations of Son-Jara.

Sumamuru is a scary creature dressed:
1830     With pants of human skin,
            & coat of human skin

Sumamuru routes King Dankaran Tuman, Son-Jara's brother:
1888    Breaking the Manden like an old pot

As we might expect of anyone who wears a suit of human skin, Sumamuru proves to be a tyrant. Knowing that Son-Jara has a claim to the throne, Sumamuru tries to have him assassinated:
1913     & one red bull did give to them,
            Saying they should offer it
            To the 9 Queens-of-Darkness,
            Asking them to slay Son-Jara
            That he not enter the Manden again.

These "Queens of Darkness" are the very "women" who taught their magic to Son-Jara.  Nonetheless, they take the bull in payment & threaten our hero -- perhaps as a spur to wean him & force him to do his own magic:
1943     "O Son-Jara,
            A message has come from the Manden,
            From Susu Mountain Sumamuru,
            Saying we should slay you."

The scene is all about power.  Your mother & the 9 Queens & mother earth (crawling for 9 years) have done what they could.  Now is the time to become a man -- or rather a lion of a man:
1966     He went to the back of the house.
            Into a lion he transformed himself
1970     He went & seized a buffalo,
1976     9 water buffalos, 9 witches!
            "Each take your own?"

The Queens are convinced that Son-Jara is a man.  Notice how operatic the tone of this scene is:
1985     Son-Jara, you alone, 9 buffalos!
            It is to him the Manden must belong!
            Let us then release him!

The Queens put the slaughtered bull back together again:
2008     The bull rose up & stretched.
            It bellowed to Muhammad

In the first line of his prophecy Son-Jara seems to be addressing his routed brother.  But the second line is clearly intended for Sumamuru:
2025    Say, "A child may be first-born, but that does not
               always make him the elder."
           Say, "Today may belong to some,
           Tomorrow will belong to another."

Son-Jara's mother dies because he is no longer a child who need's a mother's protection.  Son-Jara leads an army to take his land, the Manden, in a very deliberate campaign:
2606     For 1 entire month,
            Son-Jara & his army by the riverbank sat.

On the literal, plot level, Son-Jara cannot cross the river.  Then the hero recalls:
2613     When my mother & I were going to Mema,
            She took her silver bracelet off
            & gave it to a person here.

She gave it to the ferry-man, who recognizes Son-Jara & ferries his army across the river.
2630     The Boatman patriarch, Sasaglo the Tall,
            He brought Son-Jara across.
            The Wizard advanced with his army.
            They fell upon Sumamuru at Dark Forest.
            But he drove them off.
            Susu Mountain Sumamuru drove Son-Jara off.

Son-Jara mounts 2 more unsuccessful campaigns against Sumamuru.  Son-Jara lives in Anguish until his sister offers to help him:
2669     Son-Jara's flesh-&-blood-sister, Sugulun Kulunkan,
            She said, "O Magan Son-Jara
            One person cannot fight this war.
            Let me go see Sumamuru.
            Were I then to reach him,
            To you I will deliver him,
            So that the folk of the Manden be yours.

Sugulun seduces Sumamuru who tells her the secret of his power:
2716     "Only then can I be vanquished,"
            His mother sprang forward at that:
            "Heh!  Susu Mountain Sumamuru!
            Never tell all to a woman,
            To a one-night woman!

By now you must have noticed how prominent woman & mothers are in this story.  Son-Jara is held 10 times longer than normal by the mother earth on whom he crawls.  His human mother endures exile for him.  It is the 9 mothers or Queens who teach magic to Son-Jara & now it is his sister who obtains the secret knowledge that will defeat the male monster.  You also remember how reverent Son-Jara was in regard to his mother's funeral.  Compare, then, Son-Jara's feminine power (illustrated, e.g., by waiting for a month at the river & then crossing only because his mother had made it possible) to Sumamuru's primitive, male rage:
2722     Sumamuru sprang towards his mother,
            & came & seized his mother,
            & slashed off her breast with a knife, magasi!

Unlike Euripides' Medea, who killed her brother to save her lover Jason:
2742     Sugulun returned to reveal those secrets
            to her flesh-&-blood-brother, Son-Jara.

Armed with the intelligence provided by his sister, Son-Jara dispatches Sumamuru:
2880     Son-Jara held him t bladepoint [saying].
            "We have taken you, Colossus!
            We have taken you!"
            Sumamuru dried up on the spot.

At the end we are told that Son-Jara was as a mother to his people:
2940     The reason for Son-Jara's coming to the Manden [was],
            To stabilize the Manden,
            To improve the people's lot.

The Epic of Son-Jara is interestingly parallel to the work of Homer.  In the Iliad Homer illustrates that an unconditional dedication to violence, to getting power at any cost, is both self-defeating & catastrophic.  The world of the Iliad ends with the city of the world (Troy) reduced to ashes.  The refuges will ultimately found the city of Rome, but the magnificent heroes -- Achilles, Agamemnon, & even Odysseus -- create nothing.  They destroy everything.  In the world of the Odyssey, civilization is "woven" again because Odysseus learns what Son-Jara learns: to be patient, respectful, & self-disciplined.  Again & again Odysseus is saved by the counsel of girls (Ino, Nausicca, & "the awesome one in pigtails").
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* * *

Nadine Gordimer:  "Oral History,"  2919-31

Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.  She is a white South African whose many novels & stories consistently illustrate the evils of the apartheid system of racial segregation; how it corrupted the whites as well as victimized the blacks.  This story is almost a preview of the same theme we will study in the next 2 lessons, which will analyze Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart.  Our introduction identifies 3 themes in this story:

2923    There's always been one house like a white man's house in the village of Dilolo.
This European style house is an architectural intrusion & symbol of alien power.  It is inorganic, bearing no trace of being hand-made or even human.
The rest of the village was built of river mud, grey, shaped by the hollows of hands, with reed
thatch & poles of mopane from which the leaves had been ripped like fish-scales.

The house is both a kind of prize & a prison occupied by the chief who is forced to try to serve 2 masters: his own people & the Europeans.  Some chiefs have a car, which is purely a totem since there are no roads, no gasoline & no drivers.  Our chief:
had a radio, & he could read.  He read to the headmen the letter from the government saying that
anyone hiding or giving food & water to those who were fighting against the government's army
would be put in prison.  He read another letter from the government saying that . . . anybody who
walked in the bush after dark would be shot.

When do young men go to court their sweethearts?  Not during the day when they should be working.
We find that the village is already governed by a pastiche of native & European rituals.  For example:
The children were baptized with names chosen by portent in consultation between the mother & an
old man who read immutable fate in the fall of small bones cast like dice from a horn cup.

Which of these is rituals is empty & without power?  Christian baptism or the augury?  Obviously baptism is a strange & meaningless ritual conducted by a stranger.  The important ritual is naming & thereby giving the first form to a new life. There is no similar problem with the ritual of Saturday night beer drinking:
2925    Everyone is welcome at a beer-drink.
But how to get there?  Remember the letter from the government?  Anyone walking in the bush after dark is a rifle target.
Before the government started to shoot people at night to stop more young men leaving when no one
was awake to ask, "Where are you going?" people thought nothing of walking 10 miles from one village
to another for a beer-drink.

The threat seems fairly innocuous, because when the Land Rover comes crashing through the bush to reach the village:
2926     it could be heard minutes away, crashing through the mopane like a frightened animal, & dust
            hung marking the direction from which it was coming.  The children ran to tell.

Understanding nothing of abstract European concerns, all the village people know is that the white man seems bent on their destruction for no apparent reason:
2927     The chief's latest wife . . . of the age-group of his elder grandchildren [asks], "Why does he want
            us to die, that white man!"

The road, 5 kilometers from the village, is mined by rebels & the army is suddenly not so clumsy & innocuous:
2928     Many [young men] were being captured in the bush & killed by the army -- seek & destroy was
            what the white men said now.

The puzzling "seek & you shall find" taught at the mission church, now reveals the true colonial & military intent: "seek & destroy." The pattern is as old as the Spanish conquistadors who began annihilating the people of the so-called New World of Mexico & Peru in the 16th c.  In the course of that century they doubled all the gold in Europe.  They also entirely destroyed sophisticated civilizations & directly or indirectly (through disease) killed at least ten times more people than the Nazi Holocaust.

Even though he is the chief, our informer:
had to wait, like a beggar rather than a chief, to be allowed to approach [the military compound] & be searched.

Doing what he has been taught by the missionaries & the government (who bought his allegiance with the house), the chief reports that a few unknown young men are visiting his village.  Are they simply young men looking for girl friends or are they rebels?  They are clearly not what the white soldier says:
2929    They kill people who say no [to their demands for aid], he; cut their ears off, you know that?  Tear away
           their lips.  Don't you see the pictures in the papers?"
           "We never saw it.  I heard the government say on the radio."

The white soldier is quick to further the cause of European peace & justice:
2930     The planes only children bothered to look up at any longer had come in the night & dropped
            something terrible & alive . . . .  The earth under the village seemed to have burst open . .  .
            [scattering in the broken tree branches] bicycles, radios & shoes brought back from the mines,
            the bright cloths young wives wound on their heads, the pretty pictures of white lambs & pink
            children at the knees of the golden-haired Christ the Scottish Mission Board first brought long ago.

When the chief returns to see what has become of his village, because of his ambition to please Europeans, he hangs himself.  We recognize the symbol of native surrender in the last line of the story as well as the sepulchral color of white that means death:
2931     A white flag on a mopane pole hangs outside the house whose white walls, built like a white man's
            [house] , stand from before this time [of total destruction].

I wonder how well you liked this story?  It is certainly powerful.  It is also highly didactic.  You can image how Gordimer sought to illustrate her moral vision with incidents that all focus on the atrocity of the ending.  None of the characters or elements of the plot have any freedom to follow any other direction.  Everything is aligned in order to show us the effects of colonialism & apartheid.  Perhaps the most glaring didactic element is the somewhat heavy-handed irony that suggests how perverted & deceitful Europeans are: "the pretty pictures of white lambs & pink children at the knees of the golden-haired Christ" are not what the European military forces produce in the village.  How can we be shocked at this portrait of Christianity which has help annihilate millions of native people & their cultures over the course of the "progress" of the last 4 centuries?  Of course we see what we want to see.  We feel good about our benign intent.  We see our side of things & deny the validity of Gordimer's version of things or that of her characters, like the young woman who angrily asks, "Why doe he want us to die, that white man!"  We smile thinking that she is too young & ignorant to understand that the white missionaries & government officials hope to bring the benefits of civilization to South Africa.  Perhaps this is true in some sense.  But the way that the young woman sees her life & her village is also undeniably true.  This is exactly what Gordimer illustrates at the end.  Gordimer's intent is to force us to recognize exactly this ugly paradox -- of the difference between our motives & the effect of our actions as seen by native -- because she believes that we cannot control or stop what we refuse to recognize.

I do not mean to malign the great artistry of Nadine Gordimer.  I have read most of her work with great enjoyment.  But I hope you find Achebe's novel much richer in detail & in communicating a sense of what it must have been like to live in such an African village before colonization.  Anyway, that is for next week.  Right now you need to finish this lesson.

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